WASHINGTON — The renewed fighting and mounting chaos in Liberia make the proposed deployment of peacekeeping troops from West Africa and the United States far more difficult -- and dangerous.
Intervention now could require a larger force prepared to deploy in a combat situation, according to military and regional experts. It may even be too late to oversee a peaceful transition from President Charles Taylor's rule to a new, democratic government, they said.
"It's never too late, but if we go in now it will be entering a combat situation, which is the worst possible point of entry," said Pauline Baker, an Africa expert and president of the Fund for Peace in Washington.
A number of factors accelerated the crisis -- and have complicated the policy decisions as the United States, the United Nations and the regional Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, all scramble to figure out what to do next.
Among the factors were the drawn-out deliberations within the Bush administration and among the parties trying to work out a peacekeeping operation, U.S. officials and experts said.
The administration has "squandered the monthlong opportunity it had during which the cease-fire had held," said Susan Rice, a former Clinton administration national security staffer now at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-area think tank. "The U.S. refusal to say what it was going to do led predictably to the situation deteriorating. Neither the rebels nor the government could be expected to pause indefinitely."
Divisions within the administration about whether to intervene militarily in Liberia when U.S. forces are already stretched thin in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots in effect froze policy as Washington waited for Taylor to leave, according to both U.S. officials and analysts familiar with the internal debate. President Bush set Taylor's stepping down as a precondition for American participation in a peacekeeping force.
The Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office have been wary of dispatching troops to yet another war zone, according to U.S. officials. The State Department, which activated an emergency task force on Liberia this weekend, has favored intervention in the country, which has ties to the U.S. dating back to the era of slavery.
Instead, the U.S. sent a team of military experts to Liberia to assess the situation. Their report has yet to be made public.
Bush "had a split memo and a split Cabinet and looked at it before and after his Africa trip and was not anxious to make a decision. The split led him to be very cautious and say, 'Let's know what we are doing here,' " said J. Stephen Morrison, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former State Department policy planning staffer.
"Was it a stall strategy? No," Morrison said. "It was a missed opportunity, although playing this one through is going to be ugly and complicated any way it's played."
The hope of peace was also deferred by still ongoing negotiations among U.S., U.N. and ECOWAS officials over specifics about the peacekeepers. The focus now, however, has slipped -- back to just getting a June 17 cease-fire restored.
Bush said Monday that the three parties are trying to get the rival militias loyal to Taylor and the rebels to stop fighting, while Washington works with the West Africans to determine when they would be prepared to deploy troops in Liberia.
But the renewed fighting has produced new public pressures among the three parties.
The State Department goaded ECOWAS nations Monday. "We want to see action on the part of the countries in the region who we're working with to determine when they are prepared to move in, and let's effect this process and see a better future for the Liberian people," spokesman Philip T. Reeker said.
The State Department also "reminded" the leaders of Guinea and other neighboring West African states of their international obligations to control borders and prevent arms shipments and fighters from entering Liberia.
Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan publicly urged Washington on Monday to deploy troops to Liberia.
"I think we can really salvage the situation if troops were to be deployed urgently and promptly," he said in New York.
He described the small country of 3.3 million people as "poised between hope and disaster."
Another factor working to destroy the cease-fire was the ploys of both Taylor and the rebels.
In a play for his political life after two other rebel strikes in the capital over the last six weeks, Taylor has "manipulated the process on the premise that the United States would not intervene.
He set out conditions that were almost impossible to fulfill," said Baker, the Fund for Peace president.
Taylor may even be hoping to disappear into the African countryside and live on to fight another day in Liberia, still backed by his fighters, rather than face ignominious exile and the possibility of facing war crimes charges, Rice said.